Using Social Media for an Investigative and Tactical Advantage
Social media has interconnected our lives more than we think and best of all it is free. You can’t miss an advertisement on television or in print that doesn’t end with the “Follow Us” tag. It is the biggest thing for law enforcement since the use of DNA in criminal investigations. For law enforcement, social media provides a treasure trove of information without many of the traditional legal hurdles involved to obtain it. But are you or your department embracing this developing technology? I remember when the job turned from typewriters to computers and there was a mass exodus of the “old timers” and with them left a tremendous amount of experience. Social media is here to stay and might just make your investigative life easier.
Law enforcement finds itself at the electronic crossroads where intelligence gathering and investigations meet. Intelligence is important, but real-time intelligence is invaluable. Investigators now have the ability of developing real-time intelligence with just a couple of clicks or swipes. Everyone these days is a handheld journalist. It might not be someone posting directly at the scene but a witness from another vantage point chattering about it. The question remains, “Are you listening?” Investigative teams and especially supervisors when planning the traditional Canvass for Additional Witnesses, the Surveillance Camera Canvass, etc., should have an investigator devoted entirely to conducting a Social Media Canvass. One properly trained and versed investigator armed with a department issued tablet or smartphone can accomplish this task. However there is a caveat. As law enforcement officers we always want to use the secret passage into the “other world” and not the general admission door. You never want to use your personal account that can be traced back to you and your family. Departments must address this situation.
A suspect’s “conversations” aren’t the only ones that need to be monitored during the Social Media Canvass. Quite often the traditional news posts information from the suspect’s social media pages. If you look at the way departments use social media it almost seems as if they are apprehensive. Social media for law enforcement is a give and take situation. The department disseminates information to the general public, but should also want to collect information. I examined hundreds of police department social media sites and found that many don’t follow their own local media pages and I have to ask the question, “Why not?” Law enforcement agencies should be plugged into local media sites as well as any other page that provides useful information.
In addition to the investigative resource, law enforcement must embrace the new social media revolution as a tactical one as well. For instance, during a hostage crisis in Utah on June 21, 2011, the hostage taker used social media to communicate with his family. However, his friends that were on the scene posted messages to him about SWAT deployments, which could have made a bad situation worse. Hostage negotiators often look to get the conversation started and interview family and friends for help. Negotiators should ask during the interviews if the person has a penchant for social media and if they do what user names are involved.
Social media is transforming the way we conduct investigations and should be treated like every other major change we have gone through. Social media cannot be an individual choice of whether or not it should be used, but embraced by the department as a whole. When investigators glean productive and actionable information from social media, they should protect it as operational security – keeping secrets secret. If not, we may see similar situations that make our job more difficult such as suspect’s bleaching crime scenes, setting fires and the use of throw away phones.
Joseph L. Giacalone is a 19 year NYPD Detective Sergeant with an extensive background in criminal investigations. He has held many prestigious positions, but his favorite was the Commanding Officer of the Cold Case Homicide Squad. Joe obtained a Master of Arts Degree in Criminal Justice with a Specialty in Crime and Deviance from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 2005. He has been an Adjunct Professor at John Jay since January of 2006 and is the author of the Criminal Investigative Function: A Guide for New Investigators, published by Looseleaf Law. You can follow Joe on Twitter: @ColdCaseSquad or @JoeGiacalone or on the web at: coldcasesquad.com